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Audio Guide

Portrait of two men: the one on the right dons a green sweater, a receding hairline, glasses, and stubble, while the other has an unbuttoned red plaid shirt, a mustache, his chin resting on his hand in a thoughtfol pose.
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Alice Neel: People Come First

Who Was Alice Neel?

Alice Neel: People Come First


Our guest tonight is the celebrated painter of what she prefers to call pictures of people.

It's a privilege, you know, to paint. And it takes up a lot of time. And it means there’s a lot of things you don’t do

That’s the voice of artist Alice Neel, from an interview conducted in 1978.

But still with me painting was more than a profession. It was also an obsession. I had to paint, you know.

Neel’s life-long commitment to painting, her “obsession,” as she called it, resulted in an extraordinary body of work, spanning seven decades of the 20th century.

To accompany The Met’s landmark exhibition, Alice Neel: People Come First, we invited contemporary artists, activists, and curators to respond to the artist herself. This series of conversations will give you a sense of who Neel was…and why her work still speaks to us today. And if you’re listening at the museum, know that this isn’t a guided tour. Feel free to wander around and listen as you take in the exhibition.

TERRY GROSS: Welcome to Fresh Air, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
ALICE NEEL: Thank you….

NARRATOR: Neel sat for a series of interviews at the end of her career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Neel herself was in her late 70s. You’ll hear excerpts from these over the course of this program. You’ll hear excerpts from these over the course of this program.

ALICE NEEL: One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle, because when painting or writing are good, it's taken right out of life itself to my mind.

NARRATOR: For decades in New York City, she created street scenes, landscapes, and still lifes. But she’s best known for what we may generally think of as portraits…but that she preferred to call her “pictures of people.”

ALICE NEEL: I was on the 28th of January 1900. Think of the benighted world it was then. I was born at Marion Square, Pennsylvania. But then when I was small, about three months old, they move to a little place called Colwyn, PA.

ALICE NEEL: I always wanted to be an artist. I always knew. I don't know how I knew. But I know when I was a child, I'd get a paint book, you know watercolors or crayons. And that was my best present.

NARRATOR: At that time, it was pretty unusual for young women to pursue careers in the arts, or at least the kind of career Neel wanted. But after working her way through night school for a few years…

ALICE NEEL: I went to the Philadelphia School of Design. And by the time I got there. It was like a school where rich girls went before they got married.


ALICE NEEL Well, but I didn't do it for that reason. I did it to learn about art. And I worked hard there for four years.

NARRATOR: During her last year of art school, in 1924, Neel met Carlos Enríquez, a Cuban painter from a wealthy family.

ALICE NEEL : I came out of that little town the most repressed virgin that ever lived. I met him in a summer school. Oh, he was gorgeous. Oh, it was very romantic, the whole thing, we got thrown out of the school….So I married him, I went to Cuba. And then of course, all we did was paint day and night.

NARRATOR: Living in Havana, Neel joined a vibrant community of avant-garde Cuban artists, writers, and musicians. The next few years marked dramatic familial upheaval and loss, including the death of a child.

QUESTIONER: Did you feel abandoned?

ALICE NEEL: I was abandoned. I didn't feel it. I was.

ALICE NEEL: I had a terrible nervous breakdown after the Cuban life broke up.

NARRATOR: Neel even attempted suicide. She returned home to Pennsylvania to recover, and there, she returned to her painting with renewed commitment and determination.

ALICE NEEL: The road that I pursued, and the road that I think keeps you an artist was that no matter what happened to me, you still keep on painting. You just should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is. Because this is all part of experience. And the more experience you can have, the better it is…unless it kills you. And then you know you've gone too far (laughter).

NARRATOR: The United States was now in the middle of the Great Depression. Neel got a job with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, a government program that paid artists to make art.

ALICE NEEL: To participate in the WPA, and to see what was going on around you made you more aware of reality. I had not done street scenes before. But on the WPA I did any number of neighborhoods and street scenes, where besides showing the street and the neighborhood and everything else, I showed the condition of the people in it.

NARRATOR: She painted
…left-wing intellectuals and
…Communist Party leaders.
…Unflinching female nudes and erotic drawings and watercolors, which were—understatement-- radical at the time.

ALICE NEEL: I never could show it till 71. And by the time I showed it Everybody was so used to nudity, they hardly looked at it

NARRATOR : But as the 1930s ended and the 1940s began, tastes changed, and galleries mostly stopped showing or selling her work.

ALICE NEEL: You see all during the 40s and 50s, New York was nothing but abstract expressionists. Nobody painted people or anything like that. It was just abstract expressionism. And they wouldn't let people painters even get a foot in the door. But during that time, I couldn't give up what I was interested in for what was the fashion.

NARRATOR: What she was interested in never really changed…

ALICE NEEL: I did a lot of people in Spanish Harlem. I painted James Farmer in 64. He was then marching in Mississippi, I think it was. I did a lot of very sophisticated people. Well, the greatest one was Cindy Nemster, that little art critic. My Henry Geldzahler is now at the Metropolitan thank god. By the way, the painting I did of Andy Warhol, which he told me he considers the definitive painting of him, is in the Whitney Museum…

NARRATOR: During the 1960s and 70s, the art world rediscovered Neel…thanks in large part to her own efforts and reaching out to a younger generation of artists, critics, and curators. Members of the women’s movement also played an important role, championing her as an irreverent and uncompromising feminist artist. Alice Neel died in 1984 at the age of 84. But today, the radical humanism and empathy at the heart of her practice feels more relevant than ever.

JORDAN CASTEEL: Somebody along the way handed me a book of Alice Neel. That book changed everything for me

MIGUEL LUCIANO INTERVIEW: She was, you know, painting in a way that reflected the community that she lived in I think in the best way that she knew how.

JASMINE WAHI: She made a vested effort in creating a kind of genuine reflection of who those individuals were and tried to show an authentic vision through their eyes of themselves.

NARRATOR: In the three chapters that follow, you’ll hear much more from Alice Neel, as well as artists Jordan Casteel and Miguel Luciano, and Bronx Museum curator Jasmine Wahi as they explore their relationship to Alice Neel and her work.

This audio tour is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.


  1. Who Was Alice Neel?
  2. Jordan Casteel on Alice Neel’s ”Pictures of People“
  3. Jasmine Wahi on Alice Neel’s Feminism and Social Justice
  4. Miguel Luciano on Spanish Harlem and Alice Neel’s Community